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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Visual attention

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Abstract A typical visual scene we encounter in everyday life is complex and filled with a huge amount of perceptual information. The term, ‘visual attention’ describes a set of mechanisms that limit some processing to a subset of incoming stimuli. Attentional mechanisms shape what we see and what we can act upon. They allow for concurrent selection of some (preferably, relevant) information and inhibition of other information. This selection permits the reduction of complexity and informational overload. Selection can be determined both by the ‘bottom‐up’ saliency of information from the environment and by the ‘top‐down’ state and goals of the perceiver. Attentional effects can take the form of modulating or enhancing the selected information. A central role for selective attention is to enable the ‘binding’ of selected information into unified and coherent representations of objects in the outside world. In the overview on visual attention presented here we review the mechanisms and consequences of selection and inhibition over space and time. We examine theoretical, behavioral and neurophysiologic work done on visual attention. We also discuss the relations between attention and other cognitive processes such as automaticity and awareness. WIREs Cogni Sci 2011 2 503–514 DOI: 10.1002/wcs.127 This article is categorized under: Psychology > Attention

Depiction of a search for a vertical line in a homogeneous field of distractor lines (a) and heterogeneous field of lines (b).

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An example of a multiple object tracking (MOT) trial. A simple MOT trial might start with the presentation of a number of identical objects, a subset of which is highlighted to indicate that they are the targets to be tracked. Once the targets stop flashing, the objects would then move around the display in a random fashion for several seconds. Because all the objects are identical, the only way the observer can keep track of the targets is by continuously paying attention to them. This ensures that attention is sustained across the duration of the trial. At the end of the trail, an object is highlighted and the observer indicates whether it was a target or a distractor.

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Cuing task used to elicit inhibition of return (a) and results from Posner and Cohen24 (b). CTOA stands for cue‐target onset asynchrony.

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An example of a prototypical procedure used to measure negative priming. Target items are green letters and, distractor items are red letters. The observers are required to identify the target in both the prime and probe displays. Negative priming represent slower response to the probe target in the ignore repetition condition than in the control condition. (Reprinted with permission from Ref 33. Copyright 1998 Psychology Press).

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An example of a prototypical procedure used to measure the attentional blink (AB). (a) Depiction of the experimental design. The targets are numbers and distractors are letters. The task is to detect the appearance of a number embedded in a stream of letters. (b) Example of observed data representing the AB. The graph shows percentage correct answers for the second target (T2) if the first target (T1) has been correctly reported.

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